After more than a year off, Roger Federer is set to return to the tennis court at next week’s Qatar Open—and not a moment too soon. In contrast with the political moralizing of many athletes and entertainers over the past year, Federer offers a refreshing model of Swiss neutrality.
Sticking to sports has worked well for the 39-year-old tennis legend. Though Federer played just one tournament in January 2020, Forbes rated him as the world’s highest-paid athlete last year, with annual earnings in excess of $106 million, nearly all of it from endorsements.
In an effort to learn more about Federer and his enduring appeal, I traveled around seven Swiss cantons in October 2019, meeting people who know him from very well to just barely, visiting the tennis clubs where he learned the game, and asking Federer himself questions at his hometown tennis tournament, the Swiss Indoors.
I couldn’t find anyone with a bad word to say about him. People who worked in the tennis clubs where he practices said that he calls for his own court time, pays for his coffees, and sweeps the courts before leaving.
A Swiss reporter who has covered Federer for years told me that the Swiss press, unlike its more progressive brethren in the U.S. and elsewhere, knows better than to ask him about politics. “It’s rather smart in his shoes not to express his political opinions,” he said. “It could only do him harm and he is probably not too interested in politics anyways.” Indeed, Federer has followed the example of Pelé, Tiger Woods, Michael Jordan, and other global sports icons who have disappointed liberals by steering clear of politics.
Activists have tried to entice him into promoting left-wing causes. In 2019, climate crusader Greta Thunberg retweeted a post urging Federer to “wake up now” after environmental protesters stormed a Credit Suisse branch near Lausanne in tennis outfits and swatted some tennis balls. It was a publicity stunt intended to draw attention to his sponsorship deal with the bank, which, they allege, invests in projects that harm the environment.
Federer issued a cordial statement saying that he had a “great deal of respect and admiration” for the youth climate movement inspired by Thunberg. I was pleased to see that he didn’t cave to the mob and cut ties with Credit Suisse. But some tennis writers apparently don’t agree: the first question Federer got at the 2020 Australian Open was about the “climate crisis” and “how tennis players can help stopping it.”
“This one’s whooof, I don’t know,” Federer began. “It could be any kind of answer to be honest. What can we do about it? Not that much to be honest.”
Days later at the same tournament, Federer was asked about another pet obsession of woke sports reporters: the controversy over an arena named for Margaret Court, the Australian tennis great and firebrand evangelical preacher with now-unpopular views on homosexuality and other issues.
“Yeah, I mean, it’s a tricky one,” Federer said. “I don’t know what to tell you. She’s obviously an incredible tennis champion, one of the most successful ever. I know this subject also tears apart a lot of opinions and minds. So I think Tennis Australia, they got to do what they got to do. I honestly really have no opinion on that.”
Even when Federer has ventured an opinion on an off-court issue, he’s managed to disappoint leftists. He joined other athletes in Blackout Tuesday on June 2, posting black screenshots with a heart emoji on social media to protest racism and police brutality. Teen star Coco Gauff responded to the posts by linking to a site collecting donations for Black Lives Matter and saying, “When you’re done, educate yourself. This doesn’t go away once the topic isn’t ‘trending.’” New York Times tennis correspondent Ben Rothenberg responded to Gauff’s tweet, “Credit to Coco Gauff for helping Federer’s post be useful.”
Athletes have every right to moonlight as political activists for fashionable liberal causes. Tennis star Naomi Osaka, for example, became a media darling for her absurd tweet last year claiming that police were conducting a “genocide” against black people. But doing so risks alienating fans who turn to sports as a sanctuary from the divisive world of politics.
Timeless greats like Roger Federer understand the beauty of sports as a unifying distraction from the troubles of the world. Perhaps he can help save the planet when he retires; for now, there are still passing shots to be made.
Photo by Ashley Vlotman/Gallo Images/Getty Images